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Warning! Unlike my review disc, an actual import Blu-ray of THE TIN DRUM refused to play in Sony BD players. I felt safe in my recommendation after reading DVD Beaver's review -- they must have been sent a region-free screener as well. Don't buy this if you haven't an all-region player! --2.06.12
The Tin Drum is a challenging and disturbing adaptation of a widely-celebrated novel that at first glance wouldn't appear to lend itself to a film adaptation. The tale of a self-willed freak's odd adventures through the decades that deformed Germany is completely original and free of judgmental moralizing or after-the-fact solutions. The film's style could almost be called Magical Realism, if it weren't for the nagging suspicion that something terrible is about to happen at any moment. The Nazi years are treated as a malignant fairy tale experienced through the eyes of child who sees things as they are, without the filters of adult prejudice.
Volker Schlöndorff is perhaps the most profound of the young German directors who rose in the 1970s, and his brilliant movie is artistically fascinating. This is one show that pleases fans of the original book.
The story invents a strange character as a way of establishing a consistent viewpoint through terrible times. Young Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is so traumatized by the adult madness he sees that he wills himself to stop growing at the age of 3. He's inseparable from his toy drum, and when he screams his voice shatters glass. Oskar's mother (Angela Winkler) and his two fathers (?) Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf) and Jan Bronski (Daniel Olbrychski of Les uns et les autres) manage to survive the years of Nazidom and the bizarre events of the war. Befriending a troupe of performing midgets, Oskar travels to the Western front to entertain the German troops.
Volker Schlöndorff's biggest achievement in The Tin Drum is to express the story's fantastic elements with what are basically simple effects. A voice that shatters objects of glass is easy enough, but we also bear witness to a number of other bizarre happenings, including a vision of life inside a womb. Oskar Matzerath's strange experience is always slightly distorted. The political perversity of life under the Nazis is sometimes expressed through scenes of disturbing sexuality.
Oskar narrates the film as if he were the spirit of his country. He's a child of stunted growth who lives in terror and faces life with a kind of uncommunicative apprehension. He's acutely aware that his mother sleeps with two men and that the man whose name he bears may not be his real father. Everyone accepts this situation and his mother Agnes still slips away for clandestine meetings with Jan Bronski. Oskar hides under his grandmother's skirts in the same way his grandfather did, unavoidably implying a sexual relationship, if only in a conceptual sense.
The marching Nazis are first seen being pelted and jeered by scornful crowds. By the time of the war Danzig is being considered a fundamentally German town; Poles and Jews are being persecuted. The Jews are hounded out by both Poles and Germans, as seen in the casual harassment of sensitive toy-seller Sigismund Markus (Charles Aznavour, in a touching performance). The local communist (Wings of Desire's Otto Sander) takes pride in being a convert to Naziism, in the foolish notion that Hitler must have a special love for a prodigal son. Oskar's father Alfred becomes a party member as a matter of self-image, something he can't impart to his drum-rattling, glass-shattering son. Key scenes show Oskar interrupting a parade and ruining a big Nazi rally via the interference of his little drum. Led by his strange cadence, the regimented files of men and women break ranks to waltz instead of shouting, "Seig Heil."
The unsettling nature of The Tin Drum is more a matter of tone than any graphic presentation. Oskar's mother becomes unbalanced by either sex or the insanity of life and starts eating fish -- whole fish, head first -- without any camera tricks. It's a difficult sight not to wince at. Little Oskar is supposed to have a 3 year-old's body but he's chronologically a teenager when he has a quasi-affair with Maria, his very young-looking stepmother. This is the content that got the film in trouble with some troublesome bluenoses in Oklahoma. It is disturbing, not because anything too explicit happens but simply because an obvious child is involved.
Oskar's adventures become more satirical when he joins the little entertainment troupe. He wears a tiny uniform and performs for the German soldiers. There he meets his closest love, an Italian midget. He returns to a blasted Danzig, to once again become a refugee.
How this strange stack of bizarre elements congeals into a lucid portrait of an era is the mark of the genius of Günter Grass. The Tin Drum is a poetic interpretation of history, not an rigorous representation. But it definitely captures an essence. Schlöndorff's presentation is splendid and his direction achieves a period believability without resorting to huge sets or (with one or two exceptions) large crowds of extras. The art direction and designs evoke a dark, rich and potentially happy Danzig. The evil seems sourced in some innate sin borne by the characters themselves.
The casting is superb. Little David Bennent has a pained expression in his eyes that reminds of Oskar Werner or Anthony Hopkins. He seems older than his years, making his precocious tot character all the more weird. Mario Adorf and Daniel Olbrychski are very good and Angela Winkler is excellent as the emotionally misaligned mother. Katharina Thalbach is a Lolita-ish mystery as the sexually provocative stepmother ... leading Oskar into bizarre adventures that adhere to no known rules of conduct.
The Tin Drum moves briskly and seems to end too soon, which is a high compliment for a pedigreed art film. Volker Schlöndorff does Germany right, advancing the national cinema while confronting its despairing past.
Arrow UK's Blu-ray of The Tin Drum has something that will make it a must-buy for fans of director Schlöndorff: a new director's cut that is 21 minutes longer. The personable director appears in a stand-up interview and explains that while receiving elements from a lab, he came into possession of cut scenes that had to be taken out to satisfy a length clause in his original distributorship contract. I did not remember the details of the film from my viewing eight years ago but we can tell when the "new" material comes on screen, because the visual quality drops somewhat. It's possible that the added scenes had to be taken from a print. The quality of the prime footage is superb, and the new scenes only a little less bright and distinct. Maurice Jarre's score comes across well in the strong Blu-ray soundtrack.
The disc allows one to watch either the short or the long cut; they appear to be separate encodings. I watched the movie with someone more familiar with the theatrical version. He said that the new material is very definitely an improvement in story and theme.
I received The Tin Drum as a check disc. It played beautifully in my ordinary domestic Sony BD player, but actual marketed discs are region locked. DVD Beaver's reviewer was apparently taken in the same way, so buyer beware.
The presentation can't quite compete with the extras on Criterion's 2004 DVD. Arrow's BD disc has Schlöndorff's commentary plus his 24-minute restoration video - speech. Retail copies of the disc reportedly include a standard DVD with the theatrical cut plus a making-of video, and what has been described as a fat Criterion-style insert booklet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Tin Drum Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.